Leadership Lessons From a New Association

The launch of the African Society of Association Executives highlights the primary purpose for associations in the first place: Opportunities to network and learn.

If you were building an association from scratch, where would you start?

And what would you do if you were building it in a place where associations are a relatively novel concept?

That’s something I was thinking about while I was writing a feature story in the new Associations Now on the African Society of Association Executives, which has come together in the past year. The continent has its share of associations—approximately 500, according to Gregg Talley, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Talley Management Group, which has been assisting the nascent AfSAE. But what’s missing, people inside the continent and out told me, is a vision of association leadership as a profession unto itself.

Number one is to learn and network.

Jeffers Miruka, AfSAE president and executive manager and head of operations of the African Association of Agricultural Economists in Nairobi, Kenya, speaks to that point in the video below. It’s a segment from a South African news broadcast from February at Meetings Africa, where AfSAE formally announced its launch and opened its Johannesberg office.

The essential point comes about halfway through the segment: Asked about the benefits of joining AfSAE, Miruka responds, “number one is to learn and network. Once you do that, then you know what others do, especially the best practices in association management. We have many people who get jobs to manage associations, but they have no idea how to do that.”

“We will be creating a dynamic network/database of members, creating interest groups so that members can query other members in specific areas of expertise,” Miruka told me when I asked him about AfSAE’s early goals. “In addition, we will have education, both online and face-to-face, which will address issues, reflecting best practices in not-for-profit management and enable members to build both their professional and personal skills for enhancing their careers.”

The lesson to take from this: If you’re starting out, don’t highlight the products and services, don’t push memberships—just get people together in the same room and teach them the things that they’re eager to learn. It’s not half-bad advice for organizations that have been around for a while either. Sometimes associations are so concerned with obsessively “engaging” with members and customers, they can lose sight of those first principles.

You can see some of the products of AfSAE’s early efforts in the reports from the first education conference AfSAE held at Meetings Africa. ASAE staff has been assisting the new organization, and some of the education sessions focused on 7 Measures of Success and Associations Now. But the event also suggested that its members are handling its own concerns: One presentation, for instance, addressed membership and finance challenges for associations in Nigeria.

Chido Nwakanma, president of the Nigerian chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, reiterated the importance of education and networking for AfSAE. “The primary focus in the early days would be knowledge production and knowledge sharing, benchmarking on best practices as well as networking,” he says. It would also provide a platform for collaboration and career enhancement.”

Gary Grimmer, CEO of Leading Edge, an Australian consulting firm, is helping with the networking piece, arguing that opportunities for associations to meet are boons not just for meeting places but for the economies of the countries where gatherings happen. “One of the things we’re saying to convention bureaus all over the world that we consult is, ‘You’re actually in the association development business,’” Grimmer says. “We’re not just meeting facilitators. Ultimately we’re partners, and it’s in our interest for the association community to grow and prosper. But it’s also in our countries’ and our regions’ best interests, especially in the developing world.”

That said, Grimmer is happy to let the association leaders within AfSAE define their own path for what’s best for association leadership in Africa. “It’s their society,” he says. “We just help them facilitate.”

What are the essentials for starting and sustaining a new association? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!